Costa Rica has recently experienced a rapid proliferation of dams for hydropower on rivers draining its northern Caribbean slope. In the Sarapiquí River Basin, eight hydropower plants were built between 1990 and 1999 and more projects are either under construction or proposed. The majority of these dams are small (<15 m tall) and operate as water diversion projects.
While the potential environmental effects of individual projects are evaluated prior to dam construction, there is a need for consideration of the basin-scale ecological consequences of hydropower development. This study was a first attempt to quantify the extent of river fragmentation by dams in the Sarapiquí River Basin.
Using simple spatial analyses, the length of river upstream from dams and the length of de-watered reaches downstream from dams was measured. Results indicated that there are currently 306.8 km of river (9.4% of the network) upstream from eight existing dams in the Sarapiquí River Basin and 30.6 km of rivers (0.9% of the network) with significantly reduced flow downstream from dams. Rivers upstream from dams primarily drain two life zones: Premontane Rain Forest (107.9 km) and Lower Montane Rain Forest (168.2 km).
Simple spatial analyses can be used as a predictive or planning tool for considering the effects of future dams in a basin-scale context. In the Sarapiquí River Basin, we recommend that future dam projects be constructed on already dammed rivers to minimize additional river fragmentation and to protect remaining riverine connectivity.
Additional publication details
Quantifying the extent of river fragmentation by hydropower dams in the Sarapiquí River Basin, Costa Rica
Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems